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The Algebra of Life

These are the best answers I have found to perennial questions that haunt many
people. Why is there suffering? What am I? What is my purpose? How do I attain
freedom? What happens after death? What is a good life?

The reasoning you are about to hear is not my own, although the synthesis of ideas
probably is. I draw heavily on Schopenhauer and Spinoza. On the face of it they don’t
have much in common. Spinoza is quite heavily criticized by Schopenhauer in parts,
and especially when Spinoza comes out with tautologies such as ‘every effect has a
cause’. Well of course it does, a cause is implied in the notion of an effect. Even so,
Spinoza offers the best description of the emotional nature of man I have come across.

So let’s begin.

What am I?
The answer to this question is simpler than you might imagine. For any experience to
take place there must be a subject (the experiencer) and an object (the thing
experienced). The object of experience can be anything that impinges itself upon our
consciousness. This includes physical objects, the sensations from our body (which is
just another object really), and thoughts. Any object of perception is obviously not us.
We in turn are the subject - the thing that experiences. The thing that is experienced is
not us, the experiencer is what we are.

Every night most of us experience nothingness, in deep dreamless sleep. We can fall to
sleep at eleven pm and awake at seven am, and during that eight-hour period we simply
did not exist as a conscious entity, if our sleep was dreamless. As the nervous system
shuts down, so we lose consciousness of external objects, and even our own bodies.
And if we shut down even more, we become unaware of the mental processes taking
place within us. In effect, all the objects have disappeared - external objects, our bodies
and even our thoughts and mental images. The same happens when we are put under
by an anesthetic during an operation. One minute we see the anesthetist inject the
anesthetic, and in the next instance we awaken to the sound of voices, with seemingly
no elapsed time between the two events.

There can be no subject (or experiencer) if there are no things to experience. That we
come back to the same sense of ‘me’ when we wake up is now fairly well understood.
Our memory records events that give us a sense of the past - our own personal history.
But it isn’t just memory that gives us this feeling of continuity. When conscious I
definitely have the feeling ‘this is me’. Antonio Damasio is a Portuguese-American
neuroscientist and university professor, who takes Spinoza’s notions of mind and body
very seriously. He claims that the brain effectively creates a map of the body, and it is
this map that tells me every morning when I wake that this is me and not someone else
that has awoken. The parts of the brain that perform this mapping can be damaged. In
such situations, a person has no sense of being someone. So our sense of continuity
and identity comes from memory and a map in the brain respectively. Again, the mental
constructs created by our brains are objects, and the experiencer is you, the subject.

So, to answer the question ‘What am I?’ We simply have to ask what the experiencer is.
And the answer to this seemingly simple question is that we can never know. In the
words of Schopenhauer “That which knows all things and is known by none is the
subject”. Since the subject is not an object, we cannot know it. The eye cannot look at
itself, and so you can never know what you are. In fact the term ‘what’ is misleading, it
leads us to think we are another object, but we are not - we are the unknowable subject.

What happens after death?


The answer to this should be fairly obvious now. Since our brain and bodies die, along
with all our sense organs, we no longer have objects to experience, and so, as in deep
dreamless sleep, to all intents and purposes we cease to exist. But Schopenhauer does
give a hint on our state after death - we are nothing and everything. Having relinquished
a limited captive state within the body we go back to become part of the universal
subject, which is not limited. For Schopenhauer, this infinite subject is the will-to-life -
the universal subject that manifests in finite creatures to experience finite objects. And
so for the individual death-is-death, but as Socrates said - nothing is sweeter than deep
dreamless sleep.

Why is there suffering?


I’ll divide suffering into two parts. Firstly, we live in a universe composed of an infinite
number of things. These things interact with each other according to various laws. So
the law of gravity says that if a tile slips from the roof of a building and hits you on the
head, then it may well kill you, or at least give you a bad headache. As bodies we are
just objects in a universe of objects, and if something happens that harms us we suffer.
That is the simple part.

The second part of this is the way sentient creatures cause suffering for each other -
and this is more involved. Within every living creature is a will-to-life. Some might call it
the survival instinct, or the conatus, as the ancients called it. Every creature is primarily
driven by the drive for self-preservation, and various emotions motivate our behaviors in
this respect - fear and pain being the most obvious.

In the world of animals this survival instinct requires that other creatures (both plant and
animal) are killed and eaten. As such the suffering of animals is built into the scenario
they find themselves in. Schopenhauer says that the survival instinct is just part of the
will-to-life, and is a blind evolutionary force it has as much awareness of itself as the law
of gravity. Reproduction is also a part of this will-to-life, and nature works so that only
the fittest get to reproduce - generally anyway. And so we see violent clashes between
males within a species for mating rights, and sometimes females also. That the will-to-
life is unconscious is well demonstrated by the way animals treat each other as if they
were inanimate objects, and simply do not acknowledge each other’s sentience.

With human beings it all gets a little more complicated. While we all have the will-to-life
driving us on, it can become perverted because of our imaginative capability and
intelligence. The emotions such as anger, hatred, envy, jealousy and love are
experienced by all animals, including man. When the will-to-life is threatened in some
way the negative emotions will arise. When the will-to-life is reinforced, then so called
positive emotions of joy, love and excitement will come about.

In many situations human beings will become envious of a person who has something
that is viewed as life enhancing. This envy may know no bounds and develop into
violence. Pride is another emotion where one person will imagine they have superior
capabilities and possessions to other people, and if in a position of power will treat them
badly. The real problem for human beings however is that they can create abstract
concepts such as nation, religion, corporation - and so on. The will-to-life can become
identified with such abstractions, and if a nation is threatened for example, then the
members of that nation see it as a threat on themselves. Religious wars are another
example, and so is the ruthless behavior of businesses. And so man not only causes
other men to suffer by directly threatening their will-to-life, but it can also happen
because of identification with abstractions.

So suffering is built in. Men have the possibility to moderate the amount of suffering
through the use of reason. Medicine and effective shelter are two way to alleviate
physical suffering, and the construction of a State with laws is a way to protect men
from each other. However, reason is a weak thing compared with the will-to-life, and so
there will always be a battle between the forces of greed, exploitation, violence and
bigotry, and their moderation through the power of the State.

Why not commit suicide?


The suicide equation is very simple. A person commits suicide when the pain
associated with living is greater then the force of the will-to-life. Schopenhauer for
example concluded that life is a cruel and vicious affair, although he did actually enjoy
his own life. Had it become unbearable then no doubt he would have at least
considered suicide. In Ancient Rome and Greece suicide was a matter of course if
things became too much. Life was definitely tougher then, and so it was viewed as a
fairly legitimate thing to do.

What is my purpose?
The notion of ‘purpose’ is a wholly man-made thing. The universe has no notion of
purpose, and it has no final cause - a goal toward which it is headed. If the universe had
purpose it would mean it was inadequate in some way, and would be striving to address
that inadequacy. But how can the ‘all’ have a notion of something that is outside itself - it
just doesn’t make sense. And because the universe has no purpose neither do its
constituent parts - you, me, the planet, our galaxy, and so on. However because we are
finite we do need other parts of the universe to support our existence - food, money,
shelter. And so at a purely human level then we can have purposes which serve the aim
of helping us persist in our existence. But our life does not have any intrinsic purpose -
how can the parts have purpose when the whole does not?

Some people find this distressing because we seem to be programmed to search for
meaning. Obviously our ego needs to affirm itself in some way. But the fact that there is
no purpose is actually a very liberating thing. It means we are a part of something that is
wholly free. So if we can rise above our own petty ego and identify with the ‘all’ then we
can get a sense of that freedom.

How do I attain freedom?


You attain freedom by realizing that you have no freedom at all, as a finite being. Every
aspect of your life is driven by a chain of causality. You are programmed by your
genetics, your parents, society, peers and the will-to-live. Most of the great thinkers
have reached the same conclusion, and modern science is showing that we are wholly
conditioned beings. Gurdjieff said that man is a machine. Spinoza and Schopenhauer
said that the notion of free will is nothing more than a fantasy.

Again, people can find this distressing, but when you realize that you are a wholly
conditioned part of an unconditioned whole, then you can relax, and as the child’s
rhyme goes - Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily,
merrily, life is but a dream.
What is a Good Life?
The extent you can live a good life is wholly dependent on Lady Fortuna - in other words
luck. Someone with a crippling, painful illness probably cannot live a good life. However,
for most of us the motto should be - never pay for pain with pleasure. In other words, it
is fairly apparent that smoking, alcohol, excessive food consumption, and so on, are
likely to lead to some form of disease and pain. So the pleasures associated with
indulgence never exceed the pain that they might create.

Epicurus was probably the master of the good life. His lifestyle was simple, away from
society, and he lived with like-minded people. He would grow his own food and
considered a piece of cheese to be a banquet. Unfortunately, the rise of Christianity put
an end to his garden idyls. Looking on with a jealous eye the Christians destroyed the
Epicurean movement, building places of misery (Churches and monasteries), where
there had once been a simple and pleasurable Epicurean way of life. The Epicurean
way of life would be hard to follow today, but even so, simplicity is the key.

At an emotional level, we need to be honest about our emotional nature, with all its
hatred, envies, sadness, obsessions, pride and so on. Once we can see the emotions in
an honest way, then we just need to accept them, and not judge or try and change
them. In this way, they lose force and are less troubling. As someone once said to me -
what we resist tends to persist.